Sights to See and Sights of the Sea

For a city that has a handful of extremely recognisable and world famous icons, I didn’t do an awful lot of sightseeing in Rio de Janerio. James had mentioned the cable car ride to Sugarloaf Mountain, a pretty popular tourist attraction on the eastern edge of the city. Though, when I’d probed Tom about it later, he had shrugged, appearing pretty indifferent.
“I mean, yeah, it’s a great view,” he said. “It’s one of those things that everyone just does, know you? Almost without thinking about it. If you do go, just make sure it’s on a day when the weather is nice and clear.” I’d taken the advice into account, but there was no denying that on the bright and sunny days, the allure of the beach down the road was far more powerful than any urge to climb a mountain. The same could be said for Christ the Redeemer – the journey to actually get up the mountain to the base of the monument wasn’t a breezy walk in the park, and I can’t admit to having any strong spiritual calling from Jesus to go look at the huge idol up close. So I settled for the glimpses that Tom and I had had of the statue through the clouds on our hike a little closer to home, satisfied that I was probably experiencing a few more interesting things in Brazil than statues and landscapes.

But there was one other sight in particular that James had described that had piqued my interest much more than either of the mountains. “There’s the steps at Lapa,” he’d said as he rattled off a quick list of things that would be worth seeing, and perhaps it was the fact it was something I’d never actually heard of that made me research the steps and eventually want to go and see them. I jumped on Google and did a brief search of some of the other sights in the area – Lapa was a neighbourhood closer to the centre of Rio de Janeiro – and on one of the afternoons where Tom was at work, I set out via the bus and metro to explore a little bit more of the city.

***

I found Rio to be a curious city because it felt very decentralised. I’m much more familiar with the concept of a city centre, an obvious hub of activity that has a greater population density, is usually a little more expensive than the rest of the city, and has lots of things to see and do and entertain the tourists. But as soon as I stepped off the metro and emerged into the more central streets of Rio, I realised this wasn’t the case. The touristic focus of the city is by and large the coastal areas, and the regions that have the gorgeous beaches and natural beauty within the landscapes. That’s what people want to do and see when they come to Rio – I too had been primarily more interested in catching some rays and working on my tan than I ever had been about the sights I was about to visit.

Now, Rio is a pretty big city, so maybe there was a more accurate, central hub that I didn’t know about. To be fair, most of the city it actually based long the coast, around the mountains and the landscapes, and so the “centre” really just seemed to be the midpoint between the northern and southern parts of the coast. But the area I was in looked not far off being a ghost town. A lot of the buildings looked particularly old and run down, graffiti and litter were present – not overwhelmingly, but consistently – and I was very quickly introduced to another far less glamorous side of the city, which I had a feeling didn’t see half as many tourists as the beaches at Copacabana or Ipanema. It told a different story, a toned down version of the rife poverty that existed in the favelas over the hill, the concentration of the Brazilian slums. It was actually quite confronting, and for the first time during my stay in Rio I actually felt the mild presence of danger and the need for a little more caution than usual – a fear that I had been secretly harbouring about the city yet had never before now been actualised. But I kept my wits about me and moved on, taking a few photographs of the significant buildings and trying me best to not look too much like an ignorant tourist. Firstly there was the Teatro Municipal, considered one of the most important and beautiful theatres in the whole of Brazil.

Teatro Municipal

Teatro Municipal

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

The relatively quiet centre of Rio.

After that I made my way further west over to Lapa, where there were two more sights that I had read about. The first was the Arches of Lapa: the ancient Carioca Aqueduct. When I first read about them, I assumed I had just misheard James say ‘steps’, but they were actually something else entirely. I have to admit, I was expecting a little more than what I saw. To be fair, there was nothing misleading about the name – the were definitely arches. However, they’re been described as great architectural feat, a landmark of the city, and I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed when I discovered the building looking particularly dirty on one end, as though it had suffered some major neglect. Although in the end it all ended up feeling rather fitting for the ghost town vibe I was starting to get from the area.

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

Arcos da Lapa: the arches of Lapa.

But as I followed my directions down a few small side streets, levels of fear and uncertainty slightly but gradually rising, I turned a corner and instantly felt like I was in another city, with an entirely different mood and atmosphere. Escadaria Selarón – Selarón’s Staircase, or the Steps of Lapa – loomed ahead of me, an explosion of colour that appeared seemingly out of nowhere in the otherwise dank and drab corner of the city.

The Steps of Lapa

Escadaria Selarón

The entire staircase was decorated with an array of coloured materials.

The entire staircase was decorated with an array of coloured materials.

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

There was so much intricate detail in the ceramic installation.

Honestly, I hadn’t done that much research into what the steps actually were, so I was completely blown away when I stumbled across them. The entire staircase had essentially been turned into an artwork, with barely a patch of free cement that wasn’t adorned by a tile or ceramic in some way. There were words in the steps, there were flags, there were pictures – it was such a complex and diverse range of colours and images, there was nothing you could do but slowly ascend the staircase while marvelling at the walls around you, taking care to not trip up them in the process. There was a substantially larger amount of tourists on the steps, too – it seems as though this is one of the few attractions that people venture out this way to actually visit. I took my time picking out some fellow tourists who seemed trustworthy enough, and asked them to take my picture on the steps.

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Other tourists marvelling a the ceramic artwork.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

Sitting on the steps of Lapa.

It was actually quite a long staircase, and as I climbed further I realised that the staircase was actually a street. There were houses along either side, front doors opening directly onto the staircase, and I few times I actually noticed Brazilian families coming and going from their homes. I wondered what it must be like to literally live on a tourist attraction – frustrating at times, but surely a beautiful backdrop to spend even the most relaxed and casual days of your life. When I reached the top, it was interesting to gaze back down the steps and realise how unremarkable they looked from above. Almost all of the tiled surfaces faced downwards, and you could only really be confronted with all the colours as you climbed the staircase. I sat there at the top of the steps, partly to sit and marvel at the complexity and beauty of the whole thing, and also partly because I had discovered an adorable little stray cat which I couldn’t stop photographing.

The view from the top of the steps.

The view from the top of the steps.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

The cute little stray that I stumbled across.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

Seriously, he was probably the highlight of my day.

The steps were really interesting though, and something I was so glad I had taken the time and effort to go and see. Now, whenever I see a movie that’s set in Brazil and there is a visual of the steps at Lapa, no matter how brief or insignificant, I can’t help but shout out “Hey, I’ve been there!” to anyone who will listen. It wasn’t a hugely popular attraction, such as, say, the Eiffel Tower, and I think the fact that there were less people made it even more memorable, and something that I really will carry with me for the rest of my life.

***

That day was the only real sightseeing that I did while I was in Rio. After seven months on the road, it’s a little difficult to muster up the enthusiasm for that kind of thing all the time, but I felt satisfied with what I had managed to see. The rest of the sunny days I spent hanging out with Tom, going to the beach with him and James, and for the most part just relaxing and taking it easy. People sometimes underestimate how taxing on your mind and body travelling can be. Sure, it’s essentially an extended holiday, but you’re constantly moving your body around from one unfamiliar environment to the next, and all the new things you see and learn about and discover can build up to overwhelm your mind. Rio provided the perfect opportunity for me to just kick back, soak up the sun, sand and sea, and really not have a care in the world.

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

Tom in the ocean, taken with his waterproof camera.

And there's me, diving into the surf.

And there’s me, diving into the surf.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

Swimming at Ipanema with the scenery behind me.

And of course, the experience wouldn't be complete without a selfie.

And of course, the experience wouldn’t be complete without a selfie.

When the sun comes out, Rio de Janerio really does become, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities I've ever visited.

When the sun comes out, Rio de Janerio really does become, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.

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Monuments and Memorials: a tour of the US Capital

While Washington, DC does have a number of great museums, the city’s major attractions are still, without a doubt, the monuments and memorials. They’re all conveniently located in the same general vicinity, so on a bright and sunny Saturday morning Robert and I headed off to do a tour of the monuments. Funnily enough, our first stop was not technically a monument, although it was arguably just as, or even more, iconic than the host of monuments stretched out on the neighbouring greens – the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

We joined the scores of people who were crowding around the gates, trying to get the best possible pictures they could. Of course, the White House does offer guided tours, but you need to book them well in advance due to the limited places, and unfortunately my ‘planning-lite’ style of travelling hadn’t allowed for that. Security around the whole property was high, as to be expected. As well as the tall wrought-iron fences there were security personnel guarding every single exit and entrance to the premises. The tourist pictures look decent enough when you can squeeze your camera through the bars in the fence to get an unobstructed view, but sadly there’s no way there’s no other way to get a photo with the White House without looking like the cheap tourist on the outside who didn’t want to pay for the official tour. I like to think that’s part of my charm, though.

The White House - on the outside looking in.

The White House – on the outside looking in.

After the White House we wandered down through the green and onto the World War II Memorial, a tribute to all the American soldiers who fought in the war. The design of the memorial is actually quite well thought out to represent a number of finer details, and Robert explained it all to me as we walked around the site. There are two arches on either side of the memorial – they represent the two victories in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Flanking the two arches are 56 granite pillars, which represent the US states and territories and the District of Columbia. The water feature in the centre is known as the Rainbow Pool, but the main wall of the memorial is what I found the most chilling. The Freedom Wall commemorates the lives of every solider who was killed during the war, and those who have since remained missing.

The fountain creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The fountains in the Rainbow Pool creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The Price of Freedom.

The Price of Freedom.

Every single gold star on The Freedom Wall represents 100 men, and there are over 4000 stars on the wall. The figure in itself is a sad reminder of the reality of war, but to gaze upon The Freedom Wall and have that visual representation before your eyes was absolutely heartbreaking. To think that each star was a hundred men, and to see how long the wall stretched on for… I couldn’t even capture the whole thing in a single photograph. It is definitely a chilling reminder of just how high the so called price of freedom really is.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing on The Wall of Freedom.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing from WWII on The Wall of Freedom.

The WWII memorial it situated in the middle of perhaps two of the most iconic features of this area of DC – the long stretch of water known at the Reflecting Pool and the huge obelisk that is the Washington Monument. At this distance from the Washington Monument you could see that it was actually surrounded by scaffolding – Robert told me that they were just doing routine repairs and maintenance to the monument. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – from The Hermitage to the Vatican to the Roman Forum and even my view of the Brandenburg Gate, so many famous sights that I had set out to see on my journey had been obstructed in the name of reconstruction. The usually gleaming white pillar appeared a sinister shade of dark grey, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, so I just smiled for the camera and told myself that a picture of the monument looking like that is probably rarer than it’s original state anyway.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Instead of heading straight down the Reflecting Pool to the memorial at the other end, Robert took us on a detour through the Constitution Gardens, an area that was originally submerged in the Potomac River and was dredged up at the beginning of the 20th Century. We walked along the edge of the Constitution Gardens Pond until we came to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial wall is beautifully designed, with the two long stone walls sinking into the earth, gradually getting taller as they go deeper. Along the wall are the names of all the soldiers who were killed or missing during the war, and the reflective properties of the stone means that viewers can clearly see themselves among the names, an intended design feature that aims to symbolically combine the past and the present. There are small marks next to some of the names that indicate whether a person a was missing or how and when they died, and the wall is actually updated whenever new information is received about any of the fallen veterans. While listening to one of the volunteers explain more about the wall, we learnt that it was also intended to represent a kind of timeline of the war – to the best accuracy their records allow, the names are in chronological order of their deaths and disappearances, with the height of the war and the height of the loss of human life corresponding with the tallest part of the wall. It gave me shivers as I was reminded about my visit to the war museum in Saigon, where I was confronted with images of the war that were not as pleasant to behold as this memorial. The two arms of the wall are also carefully placed – one points in the direction Robert and I had just cam from, towards the Washington Monument, and the other one points in the direction of what our next destination would be – The Lincoln Memorial. There was so much care and planning behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that despite it being another reminder of the tragic loss of life that war brings, it really was an architectural work of art, and still beautiful to gaze upon.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Onwards we pressed towards the Lincoln Memorial, a statue I knew well from a multitude of pop culture references throughout my life. The statue in memory of the 16th President of the United States sat at the other end of the Reflecting Pool, and the top of its steps offered some great photographic vantage points.

Statue of President Lincoln.

Statue of President Lincoln.

It wasn't often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert's presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren't selfies.

It wasn’t often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert’s presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren’t selfies.

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom...

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom…

... and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

… and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

From the Lincoln Memorial we headed south towards the Korean War Memorial. If the other war memorials had given me shivers, then this one definitely gave me goosebumps. While the other memorials were a dedication to the soldiers who had fought and served, with walls that literally listed the extensive loss of life, the Korean War Memorial was an homage to the similar veterans of a different war, but it was more of a graphic depiction than a written or symbolic dedication.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

From there we left the war memorials behind to visit the remaining memorials on the walk Robert had planned out, all of which were dedicated to important individuals in America’s history. First up was the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the newest of all the memorials, created in 2011, near the Lincoln Memorial where the famous human rights activist delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. The memorial is made up of three main pieces, and together they depict one of the inspiring quotes from his address in 1963. Two pieces stand with an empty slot in the middle – representing the “mountain of despair – while Martin Luther King Jr. himself is etched into the third piece that represents the “stone of hope” which is carved out of the mountain. It’s a beautiful memorial, with simple but effective symbolism.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

We moved on to more presidential memorials, starting with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which was actually a peaceful little trail that was set in a quiet and shady grove. During the walk through the memorial, Robert taught me a lot about the former president that I knew surprisingly little about. Roosevelt had been paralysed from the waist down after contracting polio in 1921, and while he had refused to ever be seen in public with it, he used a wheelchair for much of his private life. With this in mind, the memorial is specifically designed to be easily accessible to those with a disability. He was also the president that led the country through the Great Depression and WWII, and the memorial serves as a kind of timeline of the tumultuous events of his presidency. There were various visual representations, but the thing I found most inspiring about the memorial were the quotations from various speeches he delivered.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”

"I hate war."

“I hate war.”

"... and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war."

“… and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war.”

"The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man..."

“The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man…”

"Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear."

“Freedom of speech.
Freedom of worship.
Freedom from want.
Freedom from fear.”

The fact the Roosevelt also led the people through the Great Depression is acknowledged by statues that show the poor lining up for food. As Robert and I wandered through the memorial, we saw some tourists taking photos of the line of poor people, except they were jumping in the photograph to be a part of the line.
“Isn’t that kind of disrespectful?” I asked Robert quietly as they finally walked away.
“It’s incredibly disrespectful,” he said flatly. “They’re making a joke out of a period of historic poverty. Nobody should be wanting to join that line.” We stood there for a sombre moment of silence, before continuing on our way out of the memorial.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

As we crossed of the Inlet Bridge, which bridges the gap that lets the Potomac River flow into the Tidal Basin, we approached the final memorial on our tour – the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. When we got to the base of the steps, Robert sat down to catch his breath and sent me off ahead.
“I’m too old to be bothered climbing all those steps, and I’ve seen the inside more than enough times. You go ahead, I’ll wait here.” I had to cut him some slack – he was more than double my age – so I left him there to climb the steps to the top of the memorial that was designed in the style of a Classical Roman rotunda. The inner chamber held a bronze statue of Jefferson, and I took my time walking around the room and reading all the inscriptions along the walls, presumably quotations from some of his speeches and addresses. I surprisingly found myself recognising some of them – words and phrases that somehow rang a bell, although I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where I knew them from.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

When I was finished musing over the words of the former US president, I returned down to where I had left Robert, and we made our way over the National Mall for some lunch, feeling throughly exhausted and completely famished from our long walk through the September sunshine.

***

On our way home from the memorials, Robert took us on another detour to show me a few more sights of DC. He took me down to what was known as the waterfront – the area along the Potomac River – and pointed across to the towers that signified the state of Virginia. Robert explained that there are laws that restrict the height of buildings in Washington, DC. The height of most residential buildings is limited to 110 feet, or 34 metres, and buildings on some commercial and business streets are allowed up to 160 feet, or 49 metres, with variations in areas around the White House and Congress buildings. I suppose it could have something to do with security – something that is in the back of every Americans mind since September 11, 2001 – except for the fact that the first version of the law was introduced in 1899. I guess it must have something to do with keeping the important buildings still looking important, and not letting them be overshadowed by skyscrapers.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

There are also canals that run through some of the streets of DC, parallel with the river, and Robert and I walked along a few of those until we got to one specific sight he had been keen to show me.
“This is the famous staircase from The Exorcist,” he said as we finally rounded a corner and approached it. If I’m perfectly honest, I didn’t remember exactly what the staircase looked like – to be fair, it was nighttime in the movie – but I remembered enough to appreciate it. I had probably been a little too young to be watching it when I had actually seen The Exorcist, because I remember being thoroughly spooked, even for a film as old as it was when I saw it.

The canals in DC.

The canals in DC.

The Exorcist staircase.

The Exorcist staircase.

Robert and I climbed the staircase – I took it slowly, step by step, taking my time to soak it all in and appreciate it – before continuing on. We passed through the prestigious Georgetown University on our way home to appreciate some of the architecture, although by this point of the afternoon our feet were well and truly aching, so we called it a day after that and made our way home. But I was so glad that Robert had taken the time to show me around – he knew the best route to take to see as many monuments as efficiently as possible, and he’d also been able to show me a couple of cool things that I otherwise never would have known about. He was also a really nice guy, who had done an extensive amount of travelling in his lifetime, so we were always talking about our trips and exchanging stories. He was old enough to be my father – which is sometimes a throwaway term, but he was literally only a few years younger than my dad – so he might not have been the kind of person I would have ever got in touch with or got to know if it hadn’t been for Couchsurfing. But I’m glad I had though – fun, friendly and incredibly knowledge, he had been a perfect guide and host for my weekend in Washington, DC.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

Conversations in Copenhagen: what we have, what we want, and what we really need

After spending some time riding our bikes through Christiania and grabbing a bite to eat, Esben told me that he had another appointment that evening. He was playing billiards at a local pub with a few of his friends, a regular meeting that happened every week, and Esben said I was welcome to join him or go and do my own thing, if that was what I preferred. I had no idea what I would have done if I’d gone wandering by myself, so I accepted the invitation to join Esben and his friends – after all, the spirit of Couchsurfing was to get to know your hosts and to see how the locals live their day to day life.

So that evening I found myself in a small room that was thick with cigarette smoke in the back of a small, inconspicuous bar whose name I never took note of. There we met Esben’s friends, who had already started a game without him. As I watched them play, I discovered that billiards and pool or snooker are actually two completely different games – Esben’s friends explained the rules of billiards and the use of the tiny wooden poles in the middle of the table, and after a while I even joined in on a few of the games, though my recently acquired snooker skills were no match for a bunch of weekly practitioners. I sat down with a beer and told a few stories of my travels while they played – mentioning the Trans-Siberan always gained an amusing reaction, a combination of curiosity, amazement and disbelief. Even when I mentioned that Esben and I climbed the tower at Vor Freslers Kirke, one of the women exclaimed with a gasp. “Wow! How was it? I can’t believe I’ve lived here so long, but I have never been up there!” I assured her it was a beautiful view, and then just laughed, smiled and shrugged my shoulder. “It’s okay – if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the people I’ve met along my trip, it’s that people usually never take the time to be tourists in their own city.” For myself, it would have been applicable to say my own country. I have a lot of international friends who have seen much more of Australia then I ever have. I guess when you grow up on the island continent, the rest of the world over the vast seas and oceans seems a little more exciting then the unfathomable expanse of nothing in the desert in the centre of the country.

Esben was in his late thirties, and most of his friends were either of a similar age or even older, so it was a slightly different crowd to my usual company – no binge drinkers or party animals – but it was a nice chance of pace. Eventually we had to clear out of the room to make way for another group who was using the game table, and most of the group went home when that happened. In the end it was just Esben, myself, and a woman named Tot. Tot was a lovely lady, as sweet and gentle as Esben – perhaps that’s why they were such good friends, but I was beginning to suspect it was a common quality among most Danes. We talked more about my travels, and I told stories about South-East Asia and some of the incredible culture clashes I’d seen. Tot listened keenly, and I could see the sincere and genuine compassion in her eyes as I described the kind of poverty I had witnessed during my stay in Thailand and Cambodia.

She voiced some of her own thoughts and concerns when I mentioned the fact that I hadn’t been able to drink the tap water all the way from Bangkok to Moscow. “It’s incredible how much we take things like that for granted, isn’t it?” Tot said as she sank back into her seat, shaking her head with a solemn look on her face. “Things like just going to the tap and being able to get a glass of water.”
“Yeah, but even in a lot of those places I was still able to walk to a corner store and buy two litres of water, you know?” I added.
Tot nodded in agreement. “But then there’s places in Africa where they can’t even do that! Even the most basic things that we take for granted would be such a luxury to them. It really makes you appreciate the things you have. Not enough people really see that.” There was a strained sadness in her voice, a beautiful soul that sounded so desperate to see a change in the world, yet unsure how to go about it. It reminded me of myself in a lot of ways, and the way I’d lived my life up until very recently: ideas without action, or goals without a plan. I told Tot that even the water in St Petersburg was undrinkable – that was quite a shock for her, I think, to bring what seemed like such a foreign problem to the European First World – but we remained on the topic of quality of life and the appreciation of ones own circumstances for quite a long time, and the conversation turned into quite a profound moment for me. For the first time I was beginning to consciously appreciate not just the amazing opportunities and experiences I’d had in the places I’ve travelled to, but also what I’d had in the life I’d left behind, and after this journey is eventually over, in the life I’ll be able to return to.

***

There’s only so much world philosophising one can do in an evening before the whole thing just becomes overwhelmingly depressing, and eventually Tot had to go home. “If you like, we can ride home past some of the gay bars so I can point them out to you,” Esben had offered after we had bid farewell to Tot. He had to work the following evening, but it would be a Friday night and I had expressed an interest in checking out some of what the nightlife in Copenhagen had to offer. So off we went on our bikes, until we reached what could be considered the ‘gay area’ – a stretch of several blocks where some of the most popular gay venues were located. Esben stopped outside one called Jailhouse CPH. “This one is more of a bar then a nightclub,” he said.
“Is it any good?” I asked.
Esben just shrugged his shoulders, and made a short noise that was the definition of impartiality made audible. “It’s okay. Depends of what you want to do, I guess.” I wasn’t sure if he meant it, or if his Danish nature meant he didn’t enjoy being too critical of even a simple bar, but then he said, “We can go in for a drink now, if you like?” Wary of the beers I’d already consumed, and the fact I had ridden a bike into town, I accepted the offer, deciding that familiarising myself with the setting could only be a useful thing to do.

Once inside, Esben and I sat at the bar and ordered some drinks. We’d been so busy riding around and sightseeing during the day that it was the first time we’d really been able to sit down and have a decent discussion. Something I’ve found about most naturally quiet people is that they often have the most thoughtful and interesting things to say, and Esben was no exception. We talked a lot about travelling – me about the Trans-Siberian trek, him about his smaller journeys throughout Europe, as well as his experiences at Burning Man in the USA – and our lives in general, with an overall more upbeat tone then the conversation with Tot. Throughout the night one of the guys who worked at Jailhouse, who was also an acquaintance of Esben, came over to us and told us he was taking photos for the bars Facebook page. They had an offer where if you tagged yourself in the photo on Facebook, you received a free shot. Needless to say, I had connected to the free WiFi in moments, and Esben and I were throwing back tequila shots. Following that, I decided it was time to head home, given that I still had to get there via bicycle.

“I think I might have to get the bus into town tomorrow night”, I said to Esben as we left the bar and headed for our bikes. “I won’t be able to ride my bike after I’ve been out drinking.” Even now I was stumbling a little as I mounted my bike – thank God I still had Esben there to lead the way home.
“Oh, you can still ride your bike home,” he’d said rather simply. “I’ve done it many times… some times very drunk. It’s not really a big deal.”
“No,” I said with a chuckle, “it’s not that I won’t be allowed. It’s that I physically can’t ride a bike after I’ve been drinking. Or at least as much as I will probably be drinking tomorrow.” Although I somehow managed to follow Esben’s lead and make it home that evening in one piece. On the way back I tried to make mental notes in my mind, in the event that I was brave enough to take my bike out the following evening – I was still unsure, but I would cross that bridge when I got to it.

***

Esben had a funeral to attend the following morning, and then work in the afternoon, so I said I would do some more sightseeing in the morning and swing past Christiania in the afternoon to say hello. So after consulting my Lonely Planet book and studying a few maps, I set out to see some of the other more well known sights of Copenhagen. I rode through the city centre, past another sightseeing boat trip that I had decided to forego, and up along the bank of the canals until I reached the strip that was scattered with a range of statues both great and small. There were some impressive fountains, some smaller depictions of angels and fairytale creatures, and of course the famous Little Mermaid. The statue itself seems rather underwhelming when seen up close in the flesh… or… in the bronze? Whatever, despite that I still played my tourist card for the city and climbed down on the rocks to get a photo with it, managing to get my own photo without the throngs of other tourists in the way, something that even impressed Esben. The other highlight was the impressive Gefion Fountain, a sprawling masterpiece that really makes yiu wonder what the hell is so special about the Little Mermaid at all. A Disney reference? It’s all a bit strange, but nevertheless, it made for an pleasant bike ride in the warm Copenhagen sun.

The Danish flag.

The Danish flag.

Lamp post ornaments.

Lamp post ornaments.

A bronze replica of Michaelangelo'a David.

A bronze replica of Michaelangelo’a David.

Gefion Fountain, which depicts the goddess Gefion ploughing the Danish island of Zealand with her four sons... Yes, her sons are oxen.

Gefion Fountain, which depicts the goddess Gefion ploughing the Danish island of Zealand with her four sons… Yes, her sons are oxen.

Close up of Gefion and her sons.

Close up of Gefion and her sons.

Angel statue called Søfartsmonumentet, or 'Shipping Monument', a tribute to fallen sailors of WWI.

Angel statue called Søfartsmonumentet, or ‘Shipping Monument’, a tribute to fallen sailors of WWI.

With the most famous of all the statues, the Little Mermaid.

With the most famous of all the statues, the Little Mermaid.

I biked around the city for the rest of the afternoon, exploring the streets and just really taking it all in. With all the canals, it felt like a more spacious version of Stockholm, although maybe that’s because I ended up seeing far more of Copenhagen than I ever did of Stockholm thanks to the bike I had access to. Later in the afternoon I visited Christiania again for a beer in the sunshine, but I’d decided that I was going to head back home to change and maybe have a nap before heading out again. I’d started to get the sniffles, and what looked like the beginnings of a cold, so I figured a little extra rest would be necessary if I was going to explore the nightlife later.

I was half right – the nap was definitely necessary. However, I never made it back to Jailhouse CPH, or any other bar for that matter. I’d told Esben I was heading home for a little while – I managed to pass out on my blow up mattress and only wake up when he arrived home just after 10:30pm. It seemed like the excessive amounts of beer and vodka over the last couple of weeks and the constant travelling and most likely not enough sleep were all finally catching up to me, and my body gave out. So I spent the Friday evening at home with Esben which, I can honestly say, was probably a lot more enjoyable than heading out to any bar would have been. I remembered back to my time with Allistair in Vietnam, telling him how I was looking for more in my life than just partying, and the mindless nights of purposeless drinking weekend after weekend. Esben made some dinner and we shared a bottle of wine, and we talked more about our lives, the world, and the future. I went to bed with a richer soul, and a body that was (hopefully) less likely to bail out on me during a period where I needed to be healthy for my travels. Cutting back on some (but definitely not all) of the partying wasn’t just a desire – if I was going to survive this long haul journey, it would almost be a necessity.

The next morning I packed my things, bid Esben farewell and thanked him for his generous hospitality, and hit the train tracks towards my next destination. I was leaving Copenhagen with new friends, new perspectives, and terribly sore muscles in my butt from all that bike riding! It must have been several years since I’d last ridden a push-bike – the charming little city knows how to leave a lasting impression.

Reflections on South East Asia

After my stressful trip back to Bangkok, I spent my last days in Thailand with Rathana, just chilling out and doing relatively normal things – going out for dinner, having a few drinks at a sky bar, watching a movie, doing a bit of shopping and chilling by the pool. When I think about it, it’s those little things that I really enjoyed about my time abroad. While it is fine to be a big ol’ tourist and gush over temples and beaches and resorts and all that jazz, I love the feeling of spending time just being in a foreign city and really living there, doing all the regular stuff as well as all the typical holiday things. I haven’t really figured out what I want to do with my life when, God forbid, this incredible journey comes to an end, but I must say that I’ve really developed a taste for living abroad. That issue is a can of worms in itself, though, and for now I just want to reflect on some things I’ve noticed, lessons I’ve learnt, and the life I’ve experienced during my time in South East Asia.

***

One thing that I was expecting, yet still deeply shocked by, was the prevalence of poverty in these countries. It broke my heart to see so many children in the streets, whether it was the boy in Saigon performing gruesome tricks such as breathing fire, chewing hot coals and eating razor blades, then approaching the crowds of beer-drinking tourists for a donation, or the little girl following me through the temples of Angkor Wat desperately trying to sell me five fridge magnets for a dollar, or the little girl carrying her baby brother, standing next to my table at a cafe in Siem Reap pleading, “Please, I don’t want money, I just want food.” It makes you want to run to the ATM and empty your accounts into their starving little hands, but I’ve been warned by so many about the poverty traps that evolve from giving these kids money, encouraging the very behaviour that keeps them on the streets and out of school. Back in Ho Chi Minh City, Allistair told me he sometimes gave them a little bit of money, but made them promise that they would get off the streets and use the money to go to school. Yet I wonder how many kids actually listen to his advice, and how many just see it as another reason to continue with their begging.

Other people suggest that sitting them down and actually buying them a meal is a thousand times better than giving them money could ever be. However, I had a rather unpleasant experience in restaurant in Phnom Penh when it came to offering food. I had ordered pizza and a beer, and was sitting on a table facing out into the street, catching up on some blog posts and sending a few emails home on my iPad. Cambodia is full of people selling things on the street, whether its sunglasses, books, bracelets or marijuana, but it always tugs your heart strings a little to see children working on the streets like that. So when a little girl failed to interest me in the bracelets she was selling and her eyes fell hungrily onto the pizza in front of me, I finally caved in. “Sure,” I said with a smile, “I’m probably not gonna eat the whole thing anyway.” I pushed the plate slightly in her direction, and she leant over and lifted a cheesy triangle out and took a bite. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, were her three smaller companions all wanting their own pieces of my pizza too. “Oh, ah… Sure, take two,” I mumbled mostly to myself, because the little boy hadn’t waited for my permission to take a piece. I still wanted to have some of the pizza myself, so after that I pulled the plate back towards myself and took a bite out of one of the remaining pieces. Another little boy stood staring at me expectantly.

“Can’t you guys share?” I asked, motioning to the second piece that the first little boy had taken. I realise how awful and selfish that sounded, but I was trying to strike a balance between enjoying the food I’d ordered for myself and helping these little kids out. Yet they seemed so angry when I refused to give them any more of my pizza. “Look what you have, you have so much!” they yelled, pointing at my iPad and my beer. I’d have felt a little more guilty if they hadn’t started to harass me so much, with one of the boys sneaking around into the restaurant and behind my chair. I pulled my backpack close under my legs, huddling over my table, and I felt like someone with a bag of hot chips who had just been discovered by a flock of seagulls. The boy got so bold as to reach over and touch my iPad – I’m not sure if he was hoping to achieve anything, perhaps disturb the file I was working on, or simply just annoy me. He failed in the former, but definitely succeeded in the later. I’m not proud to admit it, but after that I ended up losing my temper and swearing at them, in an attempt to scare them off. Yet the girl, who seemed to be the leader of the small group, only came back with a greater fury, spitting my curse words back at me. I was in shock – how did what I thought was a simple gesture of kindness turn so bitter so quickly? The ordeal finally ended when the restaurant owner came out and had a word with the kids in their local tongue, and I relocated to a table further inside the restaurant. It had been a prime example of biting the hand that feeds, and I hate to admit that those children ruined it for all the others – I couldn’t bring myself to donate to any more street children, be it food, money, or anything else, because I was afraid of it escalating into another nasty situation.

***

To revisit a topic from a previous blog, I found the notion of love and relationships to be quite peculiar in South East Asia. As Anna had pointed out to me earlier on in my trip, their definition of love is something very different to our Western ideals of romance.There is a huge emphasis on tradition and family, which is a whole topic worthy of analysis in itself, but in this culture it’s probably similar to what we would call “living the dream” back at home – a white picket fence, happy marriage, two point five kids and an SUV parked in the driveway. Yet in Western culture, it’s becoming increasingly more common to break from the mould and live the life you want to live, not the life that’s expected of you.

That trend hasn’t caught on in Asia. One of the conversations I had with my host while I was Couchsurfing in Vietnam was about relationships. “I really want a boyfriend,” he had told me. “I want to start a family. I know I have my studies to finish, but I really want to start my life now.” When I suggested that there was more to life than relationships and family – or rather, one didn’t need to start a family to feel complete – he practically scoffed at the idea. I told him about several of my previous boyfriends where the topic of children had been discussed – not specially about us having them, but our individual views on the idea – and how every time I had been sure that I had a lot more life to experience before I was ready to settle down, let alone have a baby or start a family. But for him, all he could hear was the ticking of his biological clock. Being gay is one thing, and I was glad that while he wasn’t out, at least my host himself accepted his homosexuality. Yet for him the idea of disappointing his family, and not doing all he could to support and foster those basic traditional values, was a worse crime than loving a man would ever be.

And as my journey continued I saw this theme continue. Any local Asian boy was never just interested in a playful flirt or casual fun. It seemed as though they were all on a similar mission as my Couchsurfing host – to find the love of their life, to cherish and treasure and protect and look after. Which is an admirable quality – God knows it’s one I struggle with – but I can’t ignore the fact that they seem to be rushing through life without appreciating being young. I scoff and roll my eyes at the Westerners I know who are married at age 20, almost exclusively for religious reasons, and I would be quick to do the same again now if it weren’t for my realisation that its so ingrained into the culture, insofar that any other way of life just seems ludicrous.

***

Which I guess is only the tip of the iceberg that is the essential difference in culture. I know it sounds obvious, and I’ve read dozens of books on the subject during my sociology degree, but it really took being and living in these places to comprehend the enormous differences in culture. ‘They do things differently in Asia’ is such an incredible understatement. It’s not just a different way of doing things, it’s a different way of thinking things – a different state of mind. You especially notice it when you run into other Westerners, and they seem just as confused as you do about some of those things.

Because the list is endless. I’ve had waiters who don’t understand the concept of tipping, and will actually refuse to take your money. I’ve bought items at a third of their original marked price, all because I didn’t seem interested at the beginning – the shopkeeper literally haggled herself down. As a white person I feel as though I’ve been both the receiver of special treatment and the target of multiple scams, all based on the idea that anyone from the Western world is insanely rich. Which, comparatively, most of us are. It’s a slightly uneasy feeling when it comes to haggling over an amount which literally converts into a couple of dollars back home. In Australia, I would have written it off as a couple of dollars, nothing major. Being in South East Asia almost had the reverse effect on me – in a place where the currency goes a lot further, we seem to want to make every cent count. Yet when we’re shaving a couple of dollars of the price that we’re paying, most of us don’t think about the money that the local seller is not getting, and how much more that money might mean to them than it means to us.

***

Cultural differences aside, I’ve had an amazing beginning to this year-long journey. I’ve been molested by monks and monkeys, run through the crowded streets of Thailand with super soakers, been moved to tears by the histories of Vietnam and Cambodia, won a game of Trivial Pursuits in the suburbs of Saigon, fallen off a motorbike in the middle of Phnom Penh, crammed myself into multiple night buses, and drunk an excessive amount of beer. Just to name a few things.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

As I board my plane to Beijing, I definitely feel a sense of accomplishment. I’ve only been travelling for six weeks, and a lot of people would say that that isn’t a long time at all. Which it isn’t – perhaps about a seventh of my journey in total. But I’ve seen so many places and met so many people that it definitely feels as though its been a long time. In the monotonous routine of life, six weeks can pass in the blink of an eye, so I feel confident that I’ve made the most of every second I’ve been away, experiencing the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, the wild and the crazy and the awe-inspiring. Yet the truth is that I rushed through South East Asia. There’s still a handful of other countries I would loved to have visited had I had more time, and definitely scores of new and exciting things to see when I eventually return.

But now the next stage of my adventure is calling me, along with what I’m sure – and actually hope – are a host of crazy new stories to be told.

First Impressions: Phnom Penh

I was a little nervous as I climbed off the boat and onto the dock at Phnom Penh. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cambodia. I was under the impression that it was a relatively poor country, but so far on my tour through South East Asian countries I’d been surprised by the diversity of living conditions and levels of development within single cities, let alone entire nations. Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia, but in the back of my mind I was quite certain it wasn’t going to be anything like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, and most definitely not like Singapore. And I wasn’t wrong.

It’s hard to describe. It wasn’t a city in the way that Bangkok was a city, it with networks of public transport and numerous towering skyscrapers.There was certainly some parts of the city that were more built up and developed, with busy roads and crazy traffic, but there were also smaller streets with a slightly suburban feeling, though not without busy roads and crazy traffic. As I would later learn during my stay in Phnom Penn, while most of the time the locals make it seem like a fine tuned art from, driving in pretty much any major South East Asian city is a perilous affair.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

View of the street from my tuk tuk to the hostel.

Ultimately, what made Phnom Penh different was the not-so-seamless integration of tourist attractions, middle class living, and extreme street poverty. In Bangkok, the city is almost separated into layers like a rainforest, with the wealth in the canopy descending down to the poverty on the forest floor, and Saigon has a tourist-focused centre which sprawls outward to the more authentic and local experience. From what I could gather, there was no method to the madness with was the design of Phnom Penh. The official currency is the Khmer riel, although US dollars are so widely accepted that menus and price lists of everything are shown in dollars, and even the ATM machines dispense dollars rather than riel. The use of the dollar, however, meant that I found Cambodia a little more expensive than Vietnam. I’m no economist so I can’t even try to explain the way it works, but that’s just a little something that did surprise me.

***

I decided to spend my first day in Phnom Penh seeing all the major tourist attractions, so I enlisted the help of a tuk tuk driver who would take me from place to place and wait for me while I visited each destination. We came to an agreement, though only after several minutes of myself insisting that I did not want to visit the shooting range and fire a bazooka. The driver seemed disappointed, but nevertheless took me around for my day tour of the city. The first stop was the Grand Palace, the home of the current king of Cambodia which doubles as a beautiful tourist attraction. As I wandered through the various temples and buildings that the public was allowed to visit, I noticed that a lot of the architecture was similar to the Grand Palace in Bangkok. They even had murals on the inner surface of the walls that surrounded the silver pagoda – named for its floors of solid silver – which depicted the same epic poem from Hindu religion. However, unlike the murals in Bangkok, these ones were not so maintained, and there was fadedpaints and cracks in the walls, and the whole thing had more of an ancient wonder appeal to it, rather than the glittering magnificence of the palace in Bangkok. There was also an Emerald Buddha in the silver pagoda, and like the one in Bangkok, it was actually made of jade, and I wondered how many more trends there could have been between two such temples in completely different countries.

The silver pagoda.

The silver pagoda.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Elephant statue near the old elephant stables.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

Nagas are mythical serpents that frequently appear in this holy South East Asian architecture.

In front of the main temple.

In front of the main temple.

After the palace was the Killing Fields, which was about a half an hour drive out of town. The trip there was an experience in itself, as it had rained heavily the night before, and some of the dirt roads had turned to mud and were littered with puddles and pot holes. We had definitely reached the outer limits of the city, and there were no pubs, hostels our other tourist attractions. “Definitely not in Kansas anymore”, I muttered to myself, watching the mud fly and cursing myself for not wearing ruby slippers – or at least more appropriate footwear.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The muddy trek out to the Killing Fields.

The fields themselves weren’t so muddy though, so my canvas slip-ons would live to see another day. The 3 million Cambodians who were brought here by the Khmer Rouge during the rise of Communism, however, did not. As I entered the complex and purchased my ticket, I found myself surrounded by the group of Americans who I had met the day before on the boat from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh. I had a quick chat with Mike, one of the guys I’d spoken to at length during the boat ride, discussing how our first nights in the city had gone down. They were just on their way out as I was arriving, so when it came time for us to part ways again, Mike looked around gloomily and said, “Well, I’d tell you to enjoy… but that’s not really the right word for this place. But go and soak it in, it’s pretty intense.” He bid me farewell, along with the rest of the group, and I set off to see the fields.

Mike has been spot on when he had described the place as intense. It was such a harrowing experience, to walk through the site and learn of the atrocious acts of genocide that occurred here, all because the victims didn’t want to subscribe to the Khmer Rouge Communist regime. It’s a little frightening to realise how unknown these tragic events are on an international level, with I myself only truly learning about the history of this genocide for the first time. Even worse is that it happened just over 30 years ago – worse that we still don’t know more about it, and even worse that these kind of things were still happening in such recent history. There is a real emphasis in this place on remembering the tragedies and the stories, so that future generations will learn, and not make the same mistakes of the past.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Depressions in the earth that used to be mass graves for the genocide victims.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

Broken and shattered skulls of victims, now housed in a memorial shrine.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

The monument that holds layer upon layer of the skulls and bones of the genocide victims.

There is also a torture museum back in the city of Phnom Penh, but after spending so long at the Killing Fields I was feeling quite exhausted, both emotionally and physically, so I spent a short while looking around the school-turned-prison and house of torture. It was the place where many people were tortured, interrogated, and made to sign false confessions before being sent to the Killing Fields to be thrown into a mass grave. In the end it was too much for me, and I ended up heading back to the hostel to debrief myself.

***

My time in Phnom Penh provided me with a handful of peculiar tales that deserve posts of their own, but one thing that defined my time in the city in general was the acquisition of a new friend, Laura. On my second night in the Phnom Penh hostel, I stumbled into the dorm after a few beers – in order to change my outfit before going out again – to discover that someone new had checked into the hostel. She was sitting down on the bunk next to mine, unpacking her things, so I said hello and gave her a smile as I rummaged through my bag. Rather than the passing “Hey” mumbled under herbreath before returning to what she was doing, something not uncommon in these situations, this woman was very receptive to my greeting. We briefly introduced ourselves and had a quick chat before I had to head out again. It was nice to have met and got along with someone so quickly and so easily, though the fact that I had been drunk, and thus prone to random babbling at strangers, wasn’t lost on me.

I saw Laura again the next day, and we properly introduced ourselves and had a bit of a chat. She was a backpacker from Newcastle in England, and had been travelling around South East Asia for a few months now, in the similar unplanned method that I had been employing. She was also travelling alone, and so while we spent our days separately, doing our own sight seeing at our own paces, each night we would catch up for a few drinks, sharing our stories and experiences of both Cambodia and the greater region of South East Asia, and one night we even hit up the night club across the road from the hostel, which had been surprisingly busy for a Wednesday night.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

Laura and I sharing a drink.

On my last night in Phnom Penh, we had gone to a nearby restaurant that was run by disadvantaged youth and street children who were receiving training in hospitality, and was also known for serving some interesting foods that were considered Cambodian specialities. I have to admit, I was a little nervous at first, but I found the crispy fried tarantulas to be delicious! The legs were my favourite bit, tasting like crispy fries with chicken salt. The thorax was also nice and crunchy, but the abdomen was a little chewy for my liking, though still tasted fine.

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

Fried tarantulas are actually quite tasty!

***

Further into my travels through Cambodia, I met people who had not spent any time in Phnom Penh. After a girl had insisted that she couldn’t visit the Killing Fields because she knew she could not handle it emotionally, I had to agree with her assertion that she hasn’t missed much by simply passing through. Yet I feel as though I definitely grew as a person during my time in Phnom Penh. I was faced with quite a few challenges that I doubt I would have come across many other places in the world (which will appear in forthcoming blogs). So in the end I’m glad I made it a destination on my travels – it definitely ranks up high with the rest of my memorable cities.